Westridge School – Vietnam 2014 – April 5th

Published April 7, 2014

Waking up to roosters screaming or bats flying while you’re under a mosquito net is quite an experience. But it is a great taste of what life is like here. After getting up we headed to breakfast around the corner from our rooms and had eggs and french rolls, evidence of the former French occupation in Vietnam. Then we got aboard our boat, the alternative for our air conditioned bus we had on the mainland, and went to a floating market. The floating markets are so unique and so different from any shopping experience you could find in America. Then we boated over to experience the cottage industry. We stepped inside markets where the people made the products right in the same place where they sell them. We saw people making coconut chews, rice paper, which Hao explained is a woman’s job because it requires so much patience, and also pop rice. In the U.S. we make popcorn but here in Vietnam they pop rice. We also got to see how people make snake wine. There a literally a bunch of snakes curled up in a large vat and they pour the fermented rice wine into the vat and let it sit with the dead snakes for six months and then it is good to drink, especially for those with insomnia, back aches, and arthritis. They also sold alcohol with individual snakes or scorpions in the bottle and even snake venom cream to help with muscle pain. Then to test our bargaining skills, our boat took us to Cai Be market, one that is on solid ground. We were given only 150000 dong, about $7.50, to buy 1 bag of pancake flour, 1/2 liter of cooking oil, 1/2 kg bean sprouts, 1/2 kg of carrots, and 1 kg of sweet potatoes. It sounds like a tiny budget for that list to us, but here we found out it was $5.50 too much. We were split up between juniors and seniors to see who could bargain the best, and after some quarrels with local vendors, the juniors came out on top spending only 44000 dong, about 2 U.S. dollars for all those five things. The seniors were just a few cents off spending 47000 dong. Hao was impressed with our skills, saying that we were able to spend less than locals sometimes can, quite a feat for tourists who the vendors know have plenty of money. Hao said usually locals pay about 14000 dong for the pancake flour but my team, the juniors only paid 11000 dong. This is the juniors’ third victory in the competitions we’ve had over the last two days, the seniors have only won twice (at lamer games like breaking pots and popping balloons) but I guess I’m a little biased. After our win, our boat dropped us off to go canoeing. We had to walk through cacaphonous insects, it was as if we were at a bug concert they were so loud. But we made it to the canoes, equipped with rice paddie hats that we got to wear. There was one lady rowing each four person boat and they lead us through the jungle, thick trees on both sides of the waterway we floated through. The canoes dropped us off right at our main boat which then took us to lunch. We ate huge shrimp, assorted meats, french fries, vegetable soup, rice, pumpkin flour tempura, and even full fish still with all its scales and eyes attached. Right now we are on the boat again on our way to visit the Vietcong general, so I will blog about it after.

Meeting with the Vietcong General was extremely eye-opening and such a rare experience today as many veterans from the war have passed. He was so open, even showing us one of his two wounds he recieved while fighting in the war and shared that his last son was born with defects due to agent orange. When asked how he was able to be so forgiving towards Americans he said that it was necessary to forgive and love because if there is only hatred it will last forever and the countries will never recover. His wish for the future was for all countries to prosper, and all people to have food and access to a good education because that is the best way for a country to develop. After meeting with the former General we went back to the homestay and had an opportunity to go bike riding again. Whoever did not go missed out, we climbed over a few monkey bridges, met a local girl who knew a little bit of english and helped her practice, and even witnessed an aquaculture farmer feeding his catfish which was quite a sight. After the bike ride we were able to cook a little bit with the family using the products we bought at the market, so we made the traditional Vietnamese pancakes and also sweet potato fries. After enjoying our dinner we got the opportunity to listen to Vietnamese music. Each song told a story, from a man and a woman falling in love to what life is like in the countryside to a song about a mother teaching her daughter to be a mother and wife herself. We ended the day with a group discussion about our experience as a whole and now were all pretty ready to go to bed, but the excitement for visiting Korea and going back home is definitely becoming real. 

~Nicole Chrisney

Westridge School – Vietnam 2014 – April 4th


The Westridge students have not had internet access for a few days.

 I woke up this morning to a chorus of teenage complaints about the sticky and sleepless night many of us had without air conditioning.  Tempers were naturally running about as hot as the Vietnamese air we’ve all come to love since our arrival, but the laughter returned after a breakfast of eggs, bread, fruit, and coffee as we made our way to Hoa Ninh High School to meet some new friends. 

            We assembled on the school’s blacktop to reapply sunscreen and brush up on our volleyball skills, then headed into a classroom full of fifteen- to eighteen-year-old students to play a game.  The objective was to work together to name an animal, a country, a public place, a famous person, and a career, all starting with a given letter.  As we were calling out names of famous people that started with “h,” a girl named Nhu and I simultaneously yelled “Harry Potter” and “Ho Chi Minh.” We looked at each other in shock before bursting into laughter because, though I have spent days on end reading and re-reading J.K. Rowling’s beloved series, and though there are posters of Uncle Ho in nearly every Vietnamese building I’ve visited, I did not yell “Harry Potter” and she did not yell “Ho Chi Minh.” 

            Once the game was over, having all sweated through our clothes, we decided it was time to go outside for some exercise and sunshine.  We all dispersed across the blacktop, and somehow I ended up on the volleyball court.  I can picture my mother laughing as she reads this—I have never excelled at any activity involving projectiles.  Many balls hit the net and innocent bystanders, and though we played poorly and out of position, our USA vs. Vietnam volleyball match was full of grins and laughter.  I’m still bruised from serving and bumping with poor technique, but I’ll admit that it brings me a small and perhaps twisted sense of athletic pride and toughness that I rarely experience.  We left our new friends sunburned, sweaty, and hungry, but filled with joy for all of the new connections we had made. 

            We stopped for lunch and then headed back to the homestay for a bike ride around the village.  As a reward for crossing a narrow and rickety “monkey bridge” with our bikes at our sides, Hao spoiled us with ice cream bars at a little shop along the way.  We made it back with only a few complications (namely falling off the trail, popping a tire, and breaking a bike) just in time to go mud fishing.  A section of the stream behind the house had been dammed already, so all that we had to do was shallow it out with a couple of stringed bucket systems that shouldn’t have been as difficult to use as we found them to be.  Once we had attracted enough amused neighbors with our struggles, the students of Westridge School for Girls, established in 1913, waded thigh-deep into the mud to catch an afternoon snack.  As a vegetarian, I’m not particularly interested in fishing, but watching the ordeal was one of the highlights of the trip. The hunt began with baskets crafted specifically to trap the fish in the mud and allow the fisherwoman to reach in and grab it.  Madison made sounds that I’m pretty sure only dolphins could hear and Sophia’s guttural shouting kept us all alert and attentive.  In the end, we had a bucketful of fish that Maren and I were tempted to set free while the others’ backs were turned.  Unfortunately for the fish, our group barbecued what I am told was a delicious snack. 

            The fish was only an appetizer.  When we sat down for dinner, we were presented with dish after dish of noodles, rice, tofu, fish, vegetables, spring rolls, and soup.  It was incredible.  After our stomachs were filled to maximum capacity, (except for Maren’s—she’s impressed us all by proving consistently that she is a bottomless pit when she is hungry) Hao led us in some “reeducation camp” activities.  We divided up into teams, seniors vs. juniors, and were given three tasks, the first of which was to collect what Hao called “treasures” around the yard and bring them back to our teams in a relay race.  What Hao neglected to tell us was that the “treasures” were garlic cloves hidden in bowls of flour and that we needed to collect them using only our mouths.  The juniors won this first battle and the seniors were left powdery and slightly bitter, knowing that we would need to pay for their sodas the next day.  The next task was a three-legged stomping battle.  Two people from each team tied one person’s left leg to another person’s right leg.  The person with her left leg free tied two balloons to her ankle while the other person’s objective was to pop the enemy duo’s.

~ Sarah Garcia

Westridge School – Vietnam 2014 – Photos – April 3rd

Published April 3, 2014

Floating marketer.

Westridge students.

Playing games at our home stay.

Cooking at our home stay.

Playing games with Can Tho College students.

With our Can Tho College pen-pals.

Tourism poster at Can Tho College.

Another photo of the tourism poster at Can Tho.

Working together at Can Tho College.

At Can Tho College with our pen-pals.

Our welcome from the Can Tho College students.

At Cow Dhai temple on April 1st.

At Cow Dhai temple, April 1st.

Photos courtesy of Westridge School travelers.

Westridge School – Vietnam 2014 – April 3rd


Note:  The post from April 2nd is not yet complete (possibly too many experiences to write about!) and will be posted soon.  

This morning we woke up early to visit the floating market. We took a boat ride along the Can Tho river, a branch of the Mekong River, to reach the market. The market opens every morning at 2 AM but we only had to wake up at 6. The market was hectic and busy, boats bumping up next to each other and unloading their goods. Other boats came along side us trying to sell us coffee and other drinks. After the floating market, we walked through another market. The floating market was not for tourists-it only sold goods in bulk. But this market was selling vegetables, fish, meat, eggs, frogs and snakes. Most of the fish, frogs and snakes were still alive, squirming around in small buckets because they can sell them for more this way, occasionally flopping out and having to be chased down be the vendor as we braved our way through. There was also butchered chickens being sold, feet and all. It put a tiny bit of a damper on our breakfast.

After breakfast we went to Can Tho College to meet up with our pen pals, most of which we had met the night before at karaoke. However, I hadn’t met my pen pal yet and was incredibly nervous to meet her. After a brief welcome and exchange of gifts, we played traditional Vietnamese games, Flying Bird, crossing the monkey bridge and Dancing with bamboo sticks. Flying bird is a bit like musical chairs but with two people making a “cage” and the third person being the bird, running between the cages for safety. Whoever doesn’t make it into the cage is left in the middle and at the end they have to sing and “fly” around in front of everyone.  Monkey bridge is a game where you have to balance while walking across bamboo pole. It’s called monkey bridge because you look like a monkey while you’re walking across it. After crossing you have to throw a ball through a small hoop and whichever team has the most points, the most people who could make it across the bridge and throw the ball through the hoop, would win. With dancing with bamboo sticks, there are four rows of pairs, each pair holding two bamboo sticks between them. They bang the bamboo against the ground. For the first three beats, the bamboo sticks have a space between them but on the fourth beat, they come together. They continue with this pattern. You have to find the right beat to dance through them, hopping so that your feet don’t get hit.

My pen pal, Thao Nguyen and I became fast friends as did everyone else. All of the students of Can Tho were very welcoming, eager to share their culture with us and learn about ours as well as practice their English, even though some of them had only been learning English for a couple months. We ate KFC for lunch along with local fruit, Nguyen teaching me the names of all the fruit as well as simple phrases in Vietnamese.

When it was time to leave, it was very hard to say goodbye. Even through we had only spent one evening and one morning together, we had all become close. We hugged, took pictures and said goodbye with tears in our eyes as we drove away, promising to continue to write each other and to visit again in the future.

After a bus ride and a beautiful ride across the river we got to our home stay. It’s located on an island and away from the city, so much calmer and relaxing than in the city. We can hear the boats going by and the roosters crowing every once in a while. We’re staying in a small home that’s very open and surrounded by hammocks. There are so many adorable dogs here as well and we have to use all our willpower to keep from petting them. It’s the perfect place to relax after the emotionally draining days we’ve had recently. After relaxing for a couple hours we took a bike ride around the island. There were a couple debacles, including a monkey bridge we had to cross with our bikes, sand pits and a flat tire but we muddled through. When we got back our tour guide, Hau,  played the guitar and sang songs from his time in the army as we watched the sun set over the trees. It was beautiful and we are all convinced that there is nothing he cannot do.

We ate a delicious dinner made by our home stay family. We helped make part of it, learning how to make taro spring rolls. They were delicious! After dinner Hau had some team building exercises designed for us. It got a bit competitive but it was all in good fun. We ended the evening by spontaneously singing Lean on Me, a beautiful end to a fantastic day.

It’s hard to believe that our trip is already half over. It been so packed with fun, with emotion, with beautiful moments and with sad. We’ve all learned so much and we have all grown so much closer. I think I speak for us all when I say this trip has been wonderful and we wish we could stay longer!

Maren Hilliard

Westridge School – Vietnam 2014 – April 1st

Published April 2, 2014

I don’t want to look down long enough to write this for fear I’ll miss a spectacular little piece of culture. Right now we’re on our way back from Trang Bang village and the Cu Chi tunnels and between the wall of houses catch glimpses of rubber tree groves and rice patties where water buffalo soak and rust coloured oxen and cattle eat less than their fill. It’s all so beautiful. Not breathtakingly so but in a simple sort of way. The traditional huts, canopy-roofed cafés and corrugated tin roofs are suddenly interrupted by tall and skinny western style houses that momentarily take me back to California. I suppose western was the look they were going for, but I long for an uninterrupted stream of rusty tin and dry star. I love the dilapidated brick houses that creep through the foliage. I love the geese dogs and children who wander harmoniously through the hardened dirt roads.

            If I were to describe this country as one thing it would be harmonious. It may be that I’m an outsider and don’t see the discordance, but I watch cars, busses and thousands of motorcycles overflowing with people co-exist with pedestrians in streets that for the most part lack crosswalks and traffic lights. At first it all seemed like chaos but from observations made over two days of culturally diverse breakfasts I understand traffic flows like a river, avoiding pedestrians like rocks. The only rule on the road is forgiveness; the motorcyclists are forgiving to cars and pedestrians and simply move around them. In this way, the rules of the road reflect a central aspect in our interaction with the Vietnamese: forgiveness. Having visited the village of the naked, burned girl (Kim Phuc) who in the famous photograph expressed the fear of all civilians impacted by the Vietnam war, I am astonished at the lack of animosity towards Americans. Here, American supplied planes dropped American made bombs that flung fiery petroleum jelly at the Vietnamese on the ground, who at this point were mostly children fleeing the temple they feared would be bombed. In other cases Americans raped and massacred women and children on the slightest hint they might be communist. Villages like Trang Bang were bombed up and down the country because of slightest suspicion that there might be communists there. We killed so many innocent civilians purely on a whim and it never ceases to amaze me that their people have so much love for America and western culture.  When we talked to Kim’s sister and sister in law they all gave off a ‘forgive and forget’ vibe. They all said it was in the past. They couldn’t change what had happened and anger wouldn’t do anything about it. This attitude might have something to do with their religion. As it was explained to me the Cao Dai religion centers around the belief that god appeared three times: first as Buddha, again as Confucius, and third as Jesus and Daoist. It was created by a Vietnamese man who traveled to France and came back to create a religion that embodied the best of all religions. If I had anything to convert from I would convert. Its such a cool concept and I like the premises its based on.  I am definitely going to do more research when we come home. Cami and I were so interested in it that we have decided to go on a quest for the temple in California.

            The whole day had a sort of Throwback theme. I started the morning with a run and 80s style Aerobics in the park to a synth remix of Taylor Swift’s 2008 hit you belong with me. The day continued to center around the Vietnam war first with Kim Phuc’s village and then the Cu Chi tunnels. After we left the village it was another 45 minutes of storefronts and green fields until we arrived at a “grade B amusement park.” During the war, tunnels were dug to provide hiding places and transport for the Vietcong and their ammunition and weapons. We took a tour around a small part of the area where the tunnels were dug and saw simulations of how the Vietnamese took unexploded US ammo and re-worked it to make their own land mines and grenades.  

To be continued…  (Yes, there was more to the day.)

Those of us who were feeling adventurous lowered ourselves into what we now know is the hardest tunnel there and set off with phones as flashlights unaware of the bats and bugs that lay ahead. It was dirtiest tunnel of all and as we turned each corner a new set of wings would flap past our heads into the darkness behind. It was a tight fit too, which proved too much for anyone slightly claustrophobic. A bit scarred from our first experience it was a relief to hear that the next tunnels were much wider and sans leaves and bugs. A guide took us through the longer and more complicated tunnels where this time those of us with shorter legs were comfortable because we could walk, albeit at a ninety-degree angle. As we emerged from the tunnel, either walking or squatting, we were greeted by Uncle Ho’s picture as well as his treasured communist flag. We were then given the chance to shoot a gun just as Ho’s Vietcong soldiers had once done. The shoes the locals wore especially fascinated me. The idea was that the shoes make the same foot print whichever way they are facing so the enemy would have no idea which way they had gone. This was one of many things that made me appreciate how hard fighting this was for the Americans who were fighting on unfamiliar terrain against locals who knew the land best. The final exhibit of the tour was an anti-American pro communist video that made the local people heroes and gave figureheads to the feelings ordinary citizens might have had about the “evil” Americans who bombed their cities and killed their children.

Throughout the day we learned about the horrors of war and the impact they had on civilians on both sides of the war while surrounded by stunning scenery. I’m so glad to be here and as my half broken headphones sing: “There’s no place I’d rather be.”  

Rhiannon Hughes-Boatman

Westridge School – Vietnam 2014 – March 31st

Published April 1, 2014

This morning, we had a fantastic breakfast at our hotel, the Palace Hotel Saigon. They had noodle soup (fish or pork), sticky purple rice, toast, omelets, silky, rich coffee, and tons of other options. The rice redefined sticky: it was like it had been cooked in glue! 

After breakfast, we met in the lobby and walked to the center of Saigon. The buildings, old and new, were fascinating! There were beautiful French ones from the 1800s, historical ones from the war era, and glittering new ones built from glass and chrome. 

There were so many people on scooters! Easily five for each person in a car. Some wore western-looking clothes, but others were dressed more traditionally. Many were wearing Non La (conical hats). Some street vendors were juicing fruits right on the sidewalk! The most exciting part was crossing the street. There are no breaks in scooter traffic, so you just walk steadily across in a small group while they zoom around you. It’s exhilarating, and actually pretty safe. Still, most intersections where there are tourists have special green-clad tourist police to protect visitors and help them cross. In the main big square at the center of the city, we saw about four different couples who were taking pictures because it was their wedding day. Our wonderful guide Hau told us that most couples in Saigon take pictures there for luck.  

We visited the Catholic cathedral and the post office. The cathedral was gorgeous: red brick on the outside, stained glass and dark wooden pews within. The huge post office had clocks displaying the time in places around the world, soaring ceilings, a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh, and a shopping counter with souvenirs in the middle. 

After we left the post office, our bus took us to the Reunification Palace. Before and during the war, it was a the residence of the the South Vietnamese president. It is the place where the famous picture of the communist tanks breaking through the gates was taken. We saw replicas of the tanks and  learned about the history of the rooms inside where important meetings had been held. The furniture was fabulous! It was like Vietnamese-fusion-60s-mod furniture. After seeing the aboveground part of the palace, we went underground to see the secret rooms where important planning had happened during the war. Very eerie. 

Afterwards, we had lunch at a famous restaurant called Pho 2000 where Bill Clinton ate in the 90s to normalize relations with Vietnam. The pho was excellent! When we had eaten our fill, we went across the street to the Ben Thanh market. It is the biggest market in Saigon, and Hau told us that no one who comes to the city is considered a real visitor until she has been there. It certainly lived up to the hype. It was so chaotic! Very crowded, with tiny aisles between stands. People were selling flowy pants (quite aggressively), shoes, T-shirts, handbags, and so much food! At every single shop, they would say, “Something for you, miss?” or “What you looking for?” I had never bargained before, but I learned quickly: I spent $15 on my first pair of pants, and only $5 on my second pair of virtually identical pants! Embarrassing, but at least I learned something. If you started negotiating and then tried to walk away because the shopkeepers would not lower their prices, they would grab your wrist and try to reason and plead with you. Sometimes it got to be very uncomfortable. 

When we were finished shopping, we headed back to our hotel via bus for some relaxation time. We swam in the outdoor pool on the top floor. It was gorgeous! There was a wonderful view of the city and the Saigon river, and the pool itself was deliciously refreshing. 

Later, a small group of us walked the few blocks down to the Saigon River. We watched the dining boats flow by languidly and the people sitting by the river. We even got to go up to the roof of the Hotel Majestic, which had a stunning view of the city, the river, and the lush forested area on the other side. Alethea even ordered coconut milk in coconuts for us to sip, which perfected the idyllic scene. 

Back at the hotel, we loaded onto the bus, which took us out of District One, the nicer business district, and into District Three. There, we shared hot pot for dinner. It was boiling, but we ate eagerly despite the heat because it was so scrumptious. After dinner, the bus took us back to our hotel. 

We all checked in by sharing our impressions of the day. Afterwards, some of us went to bed and some went on a short walk to see two beautiful old hotels. First, we went to the Rex, where war debriefings, dubbed the “Five O’Clock Follies” by journalists, were held every evening by American generals during the war. The rooftop had a breathtaking view of the bustling city. Alethea told us that it had been a hotbed of drinking, smoking, gambling, and prostitution for scared men during the war. Next, we went to the Hotel Continental Saigon, a gorgeous and romantic French building where “The Quiet American” is set.

Finally, we walked back to the hotel and went to sleep, totally exhausted. Truly an amazing first day.

-Lucy Grindon

Westridge School – Vietnam 2014

Published March 31, 2014

A group of 17 students and 3 chaperones from Westridge School explore Vietnam on a Peace Works Travel regional exploration of Southern Vietnam beginning in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).  Combining cultural awareness, adventure travel, insider’s access to living historians, community service and analytical reflection, this one-of-a-kind educational trip will empower students to understand the causes and consequences of America’s most controversial war.

Westridge students celebrating peace at the
Reunification Palace.

Famous North Vietnamese tank which crashed
through the gates, April 30, 1975 officially
signaling the end of the war.

Bargaining in the Ban Thanh Market.

Walking through the streets of Saigon.

Old French colonial influences.

Cooling off at the rooftop pool.

Westridge girls in local pants!